Communication is key in an emergency, but two fire chiefs say law enforcement officials recently limited communication between police and fire personnel.
The result, the chiefs say, could lead to less effective emergency responses, but law enforcement officials say it was a cost-saving step that also better secured sensitive information.
Bill Franse, fire chief for the Western Cass Fire Protection District in Cleveland, who also serves as the president of the Cass County Fire Chiefs’ Association, said the Cass County sheriff’s office recently reprogrammed his and other agency’s radios, muting the sheriff’s chatter in the process.
Jason Honderick, fire chief at Dolan West Dolan’s department, said blocking the deputies’ airwaves has had an adverse effect on his department’s operations.
Maj. Jeff Weber with the sheriff’s department said the decision to block the channels from local fire departments was prompted by concerns about data theft and breaches of privacy.
Weber said the names of concealed-weapon carriers and juvenile offenders may be broadcast over the airwaves — sensitive information that the department wishes to protect.
“In this day and age when personal information is being grabbed and used in so many ways, we believe there should be a little bit of thought given to how that goes out,” Weber said.
Firefighters, who respond to potentially dangerous scenes to render medical aid, can be patched through to listen in on the deputies’ radio chatter, which Franse says allows them to gather details to inform their eventual medical response.
“But in the heat of the moment, if someone doesn’t remember to do the patch, we’re still in the dark,” Franse said.
Human error can occur, Weber said, resulting in the fire personnel — consisting of emergency medical technicians, paramedics and first responders — being left out of the loop.
Criminal Justice Information Services, or CJIS, a department of the Missouri Highway Patrol, recently performed its biennial audit of the sheriff’s department. James Shrewsbury, the sheriff’s dispatch supervisor, said CJIS officials expressed support for any action making systems more secure.
Shrewsbury said CJIS has suggested that future legislation could require law enforcement agencies to secure their radios, limiting access to their channels only to other law enforcement officers.
The decision to reprogram the fire agencies’ radios was prompted in part by a separate security upgrade, as completing both measures at once was cheaper and less time consuming, Shrewsbury said.
“Almost everything we do has some sort of privacy issue to do with it,” he said.
“You want to trust everybody, but there are people you can’t trust, and we have to manage who has access to that radio system.”
Weber said the sheriff’s department does not have access to information on the volunteers and employees of the six fire agencies it dispatches around the county, mainly in rural areas.
“We’d be very remiss … putting information out there that we could (secure),” Weber said.
Franse, though, said the move to mute sheriff’s deputies’ channels suggested a lack of trust between the sheriff’s department and rural fire agencies, many of which rely on volunteers to maintain operations.
“They’re insinuating volunteers are criminals,” Franse said.
Regardless of the motivations, Franse said being blocked from the deputies’ channel has made his job more difficult. Dolan West Dolan’s Honderick concurred.
When fire agencies aren’t patched through to the sheriff’s channel, they are often relayed information from dispatchers.
“It’s kind of like the telephone game,” Honderick said. “The information might be similar but there will be abnormalities.”
During dangerous situations, such as an armed criminal barricading in a home, firefighters will “stage,” or wait at a safe distance until they are notified that it’s safe to enter a scene and provide medical care.
During staging, “a lot of information is being relayed between officers and dispatch,” Honderick said. “That information we can no longer hear. Depending on the patient’s condition, when we get in there we may or may not get the right information to prepare for that.”
Patching can be effective, Shrewsbury said, pointing to a recent incident involving a missing person in which eight agencies were patched together on one channel.
“Patching, when used, works very well,” he said. “There could be some tweaking as far as what channels to use in certain situations. That’s something I think the county can improve on.”
Franse said his agency was accustomed to receiving updates on road conditions, storm spotting and motor vehicle accidents on the sheriff’s channel, but that information is not always patched through and thus, at times, inaccessible.
“The sheriff’s office is deciding whether or not to dispatch us for motor vehicle accidents within our jurisdiction,” Franse said. “If it involves a patient or potential patient, (sheriff’s deputies) don’t have the authority to decide if that person is injured or not.”
The tension between the sheriff’s department and some fire agencies may have roots from 2012. That’s the year voters passed a half-cent sales tax for central dispatching. The actual language on the ballot has caused varying interpretations.
The ballot language stated the tax would be used “for the purpose of providing central dispatching of fire protection, emergency ambulance service, including emergency telephone services, and other emergency services.”
The tax revenue generated is paying down a $16 million interoperable radio system, one that linked all agencies in the county for the first time. Weber said the radios serve as a form of centralized dispatching in the county.
Franse disagrees and said the sales tax monies should have gone toward a physical centralized dispatch center.
“I think the definition of centralized dispatching would be actually dispatching in a centralized location,” he said.
David Ullery, the chief at Dolan West Dolan before retiring in 2005 and a current member of the board of directors for the department, called the ballot language misleading.
“The simple fact of the matter was it stated central fire and EMS dispatching,” Ullery said. “That’s why the fire departments supported it.”
George Poulignot, a volunteer at the Central Cass Fire Protection District and former firefighter with the Harrisonville Fire Department, called the 2012 vote a missed opportunity.
“That would’ve been the time to solicit the funds for a central dispatch center for the county,” Poulignot said.
Weber, who is a member of the Cass County Emergency Services Board — the entity formed to manage the sales tax dollars from the 2012 vote — said centralized dispatching has been an ongoing discussion on the board.
“The problem is we’ve never been able to fund it,” Weber said.
Robin Tieman, the board’s executive director, said a consultant would need to be hired to estimate the cost of constructing a centralized dispatch center.
But Tieman said no public safety entity has requested that the board look into centralized dispatching.
Franse said centralized dispatching would enhance emergency response operations throughout the county and especially in rural districts.
An emergency requiring an ambulance in Cleveland is normally reported to the Belton Fire Department, but if Belton’s ambulances are already occupied, dispatchers in Belton will relay the call to other dispatchers at surrounding departments.
Franse recalled instances in which other departments, due to an overload of calls, had to prioritize, leading to a delay before an ambulance was dispatched to Cleveland.
“It’s a communication breakdown,” Franse said. “That’s the problem with all the (dispatch centers), when you move outside your bubble, that’s where things start falling through the cracks, and it’s in the rural areas where things fall outside those bubbles.”